Academic vs. Vocational: The Education Gap

As a company, our desire to get more young people into programming has led to our heavy involvement in local education and careers initiatives. We host code clubs, schools and hands-on training programmes at our office space in Cornwall throughout the year, and regularly feature at careers fairs and events across schools and colleges in the county too. While we’ve been busy raising the profile for software industry careers in Cornwall, we’ve noticed a problem with the system.

There is a gap, and variety of misconceptions and ideologies surrounding the labels of ‘Academic’ and ‘Vocational’ when it comes to curricular subjects. What are the issues caused by this gap? Why does it exist? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done about it?

 

What Are the Main Misconceptions Caused by This Split?

  • “Academia leads to a good job with good pay, while a Vocational path leads to a low-skilled job and low pay.”
  • “Academia is expensive, while you get paid to take a Vocational path.”
  • “A Vocational path is more practical, while Academia requires more knowledge.”
  • “A Vocational path leads you to one profession, whereas Academia gives you more options.”

 

Why Does This Split Exist?

This split was initially derived in the 1960s, where children in their last year of primary school were given a test known as the ’11 Plus’, the results of which would determine which secondary school they were offered to attend. Those who achieved the highest results would progress to ‘Grammar’ schools (it would be here that pupils would study ‘Academic’ subjects and take exams such as O-levels/GCSEs and A-Levels), while the rest would go on to a ‘Secondary Modern’ (here they would have the choice of a wider range of more ‘Vocational’ subjects, but have less focus on examinations).

The secondary school system soon amalgamated into a ‘Comprehensive’ system, where both Academic and Vocational strands were offered, but it has still left a distinct split between the two.

It is now seen as a way to give children a choice. Vocational subjects, such as Engineering or Travel and Tourism, help to develop a very specific skillset and experience that will lead towards a certain career. This is perfect for people who know exactly what they want to pursue as a career early on, but many young people may not have decided where their passion lies yet. In this case, Academic subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, are much broader, leaving pupils open to a range of different jobs.

And while this makes sense in theory, the reality is that Vocational paths are now too narrow and Academia is possibly too broad. For example, the contrast between a Networking Apprenticeship (where the student will learn the very specific skills necessary to build computer networks) and a Computer Science degree (an enormous area of study) is so huge that there’s no wonder a divide has grown between these two paths.

 

Moving Forward…

The aim ultimately is to close the gap between these two labels, with Vocational subjects introducing more transferrable skills and theory in order to step away from the ‘narrow path’ mind-set and misconception that these areas don’t require as much ‘intelligence’, and with Academic subjects becoming more practical and experience-based to help with employability down the line.

The first step towards this, which is happening right now, is the introduction of new Degree Apprenticeships this year. As the name suggests, people will be able to undertake experience-based study while working towards a degree-level qualification. This is really exciting, as it means that Apprenticeships and other Vocational careers pathways are going to be gaining more credibility and recognition over the next few years, and will slowly be steering towards introducing more theory as well.

A step further would be to start renaming a lot of courses that are out there currently, both Academic and Vocational. Many course titles are misleading, vague or too broad, so being more specific could help to iron out any confusions. For example, Computer Engineering and Computer Science deliver incredibly similar syllabuses, and yet they are considered very differently given the labels of Vocational and Academic, while IT or ICT is extremely different altogether.

Meanwhile what we are trying to accomplish at Bluefruit, is to increase awareness of this problem, and remove the stigma surrounding Vocational paths including Apprenticeships. We visit schools around the county to show what we do and talk to young people about how they can get into the industry, and we enjoy showcasing the success of our team members, some of whom have progressed up from Vocational paths themselves.

There are plenty of other steps that can be taken in the education system to remove this issue, but it will take time. We are excited to be on the frontline of offering Degree Apprenticeships over the next few years, and are looking forward to what the future may hold for this particular pathway!

We would love to hear any other ideas you may have for small steps towards a unified system!